An old man in the next chair glared out from behind his paper.

When it was Illegal to Import Spirits from Montreal There was an “Underground Railway” in Operation, Which Succeeded Many Times in Beating the Police, But Which Also Enriched the City Treasury by $500.000 – A Few of the Funniest Stories that are Told.

By Gregory Clark, January 10, 1920.

Now that liquor can be imported legally into Ontario1, some of the tales pertaining to the illegal importation of booze may safely be told.

Sober citizens have snapped their fingers, during the past four years, and said:

“Pah! There is more drinking nowadays than ever before! Liquor is coming into this town by the carload. The police don’t even pretend to stop it. Why, I know four places right now that I can phone to, and have a bottle of whiskey delivered here in five minutes.”

We all know this sober citizen. Needless to say, if he had really known of four such miraculous places, he wouldn’t have been wearing such an old hat. He could have sold his information and made a fortune.

No, the majority of such romancers were either highly imaginative extopers2, who, in the dire dessication of modern times, permitted themselves a free fancy; or merely wise guys of that old type which knows of so many wicked and thrilling places, but which seems content to remain in the haunts of ordinary and gullible men.

Nevertheless, that there have been underground routes for liquor, everyone knows. The whiffs of half-forgotten odors that we occasionally got on street cars were not all from doctor’s prescriptions. The hilarious gentleman on the night-car hadn’t been sitting at a sick-bed. And we all know of somebody who has a friend who safely wangled one lone bottle of rye in his suitcase from Montreal.

Taxicab drivers have been accused of being Toronto’s liveliest source of illicit liquor. All you had to do, the wise guy said, was to phone a taxi stand and the bottle was yours.

We asked one of Toronto’s senior police officials about the underground of liquor traffic.

“Did it exist?” we asked.

“It did,” said he.

“Why wasn’t it stopped like the underground drug traffic?”

“Because,” said the official, “in the drug traffic, there are a few crooks engaged in a sly business. They are hard to find, but once found, are easily squashed.

“But when crooks, bootleggers, lawyers, financiers, professors, bankers, clubmen, business men, aldermen, and even a few church officials all engaged whole-heartedly in the jovial game of booze-smuggling, the police, numerically inferior, were up against a big job. Some liquor was bound to leak in. To say that the police have done nothing is hardly exact. Their activities in Toronto alone, in the past three years, have cost the cosmopolitan booze runners over half a million dollars.”

The first and most popular method of smuggling liquor into Ontario was by freight.

The liquor, cunningly disguised as anything from a bale of hay to a human corpse, was addressed to the consignee who ordered it. Any article of merchandise big enough to contain a quart of whiskey was utilized as camouflage by the imaginative smugglers. The police and Inland Revenue Officers kept as close tab on these methods as was possible. But to probe every item of freight entering Ontario would have necessitated the remobilization of the C. E. F3.

One of the cutest ideas was a dozen cases of Scotch shipped as human body. The whiskey was in a beautiful black coffin inside the shipping box, just to allay suspicion. A case where the body was absent but the spirit present.

The second most profitable system, according to record, was by means of motor cars or lorries. To motor to Montreal or neighboring ports, load up at the alleged hoards, and drive home, was said to have been as easy as rolling off a log. But it had its comedies of error, too.

A Toronto military man decided to replenish his cellar. He drove in his touring car to Montreal, loaded up with $300 worth of assorted delicacies and started home. Outside Belleville, his car skidded into a ditch.

Presidently along came a flivver.

“Quit hoggin’ the hull highway!” yelled its two occupants at the Toronto man. And they got out of their flivver to investigate the Toronto man’s predicament.

While giving him the benefit of their advice, they casually noted the square contents of the ditched car, said contents being vainly covered with rugs.

“Excuse me,” said one of the strangers, “but I’m the county constable. Pardon me if I seem to examine your cargo.”

Luck? Merely luck. The Toronto man was soaked $500 and costs at the nearest court of competent jurisdiction, and the assorted delicacies were confiscated.

The third method of importation was by hand. The police have uncovered many schemes for concealing liquor about the body in hollow metal body shields. But the ordinary suitcase, handbag and trunk were the principal means used.

A Toronto traveling-man, finding himself in Montreal with an empty sample trunk, decided to load it up with liquor. He did so. He had it carefully deposited at the station, and hung around till he saw it safe on board. Then he took a seat in the coach nearest the baggage car, and at every stop between Montreal and Toronto, he hung out the window to make sure that his precious trunk was not put off.

Arriving at the Union Station, he trolled unconcernedly into the baggage room to claim his trunk. Picture his horror when he found his trunk set to one side in the “excess baggage” corner.

He figured he was found out, and that the police had set it aside, awaiting to pinch him as soon as he claimed it.

He was sick with disappointment. But he remembered he had a good friend high up in the railway company. Rushing to his office, he telephoned this friend, confessing all.

“And they’ve set my trunk aside,” he said. “You get it out, and I give you a good share of the contents”

“Sure,” said his friend. “Don’t worry. I’ll do what I can.”

And sure enough that afternoon, the precious sample trunk was delivered up to its owner’s home.

Feverishly, he opened it. It was empty!

Not a smell of liquor in it. Who had done this wicked thing: someone on the train, in the station, or was it his friend?

But the joke was on the traveling man. He could not kick4.

That was more than half the humor of the smuggling game. Whatever happened, one couldn’t raise a kick. Being contraband, liquor could be stolen with impunity.

Two friends were on the train coming from Montreal. Each had a bottle of whiskey in his grip5. They were in the smoking car.

“Look here,” whispered one to the other, “why should both of us run the risk of being caught. You put my bottle in with yours and then if you’re caught, I’ll split the fine with you. You’ll find my satchel back behind my seat.

“Shoot,” whispered the other. “That’s the talk. I’ll do it.”

But into the parlor car he went, drew his friend’s handbag from under the seat and quietly and stealthily withdrew the bottle of liquor from it.

An old man opposite suddenly looked out from behind his paper and beheld this action, glared at him but said nothing.

“Caught, sure,” said the traveler who felt the gaze of his fellow-passenger piercing his very vitals. “That fellow’s a detective and I’ll be pinched as soon as I arrive in Toronto.”

But nothing happened.

On arriving at their hotel, the two travelers opened their grips.

“Hello!” said the one, “I thought you put my bottle of whiskey in your grip!”

“So I did,” replied the other, producing two bottles from his bag.

In silent astonishment, the other produced a bottle from his.

“Great Scotch!” cried the first, “I must have opened that detective’s bag by mistake!”

He had. And the other chap, not knowing who the others might be, the was powerless to raise an objection. He happened to be staying at the same hotel, but when the friends hunted him up and returned the bottle he failed to see the joke.

“Whole carloads of whiskey have disappeared in transit,” say the police “If a foxy railway employe discovers a car of whiskey labelled sewing machines, and can sidetrack that car, he is fairly safe in assuming that the owners of the car, fearing they are discovered, will not raise a run holler.”

As the ravens fed Elijah, so did a jocular fate bring a grateful gift to a little village outside Toronto.

This little village is one of those way-stations which closes up at night, even the locals passing it swiftly by. The station agent goes home about nine o’clock in the evening.

One night, not long ago, a freight car was quietly sided at this station, The agent had gone home. All was silent.

About midnight, one of the village worthies, on his way home, passed the station.

Now this man had sort of a sixth sense. He could smell liquor through a cement vault,

He felt his spine tingling and his hair rising as he passed the station.

“Spirits!” he said, softly.

Just to see if his senses had betrayed him, he came over and investigated the lone box car.

Sure enough, it was packed full of cases of whiskey.

Here was a problem.

“This liquor,” argued the villager with himself, “is contraband. Some wicked man is trying to smuggle this liquor into the country. Is he going to get away with it? Well, not with all of it!”

And the villager hastened to the home of another villager. A working party was secretly assembled, and several buggies, democrats and Bain wagons6 came in the night to the lone freight car.

A working party was secretly assembled, and several buggies, democrats and Bain wagons came in the night to the lone freight car.

In the morning, the station agent, on arriving, found a freight car the siding, broken open, and about a quarter full of cases of whiskey. He Immediately notified railway headquarters and that afternoon a number of officials and police appeared on the scene.

The police scoured the village for the looted liquor. Suspect after suspect was visited. At several places, where they were cheerfully shown over the premises, they were given a quiet snort by the jovial owners. In fact, the police were of the opinion that nowhere had they encountered a village the cellars of which were go well stocked. And such fine, amiable people, too! But a hoard of looted liquor was nowhere to be found.

The police finally gave up the search, deciding that in all probability, some professional gang of booze runners from the city had arranged to have the car side-tracked at the village, and had motored out and taken most of their haul, leaving some because of daylight.

And the village concurs in this theory.

Editor’s Notes:

  1. Even though Prohibition was in effect in Ontario, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had ruled in 1896 that provinces do not have the authority to prohibit the importation of alcohol. Quebec allowed alcohol at the time. This loophole was closed in the 1921 referendum. ↩︎
  2. I’m not sure if this is a typo, I cannot find the definition of this word. ↩︎
  3. The Canadian Expeditionary Force from World War One. ↩︎
  4. Slang for “complain”. ↩︎
  5. Slang for “suitcase”. ↩︎
  6. Democrats and Bain wagons were types of horse drawn carriages. ↩︎